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Adviser trip

29 May 2020

THE nature of political events is such that a leader comment written about a threatened minister or government figure on press day is almost invariably out of date by the time the paper is delivered 36 hours later. By then, the person under attack has usually been forced to resign, either because the fault warranted it, or because a defence would demand more time and attention than the Government can afford. Dominic Cummings, however, seems to be stuck to the Prime Minister with stronger adhesive than most. When Catherine Calderwood, the former Chief Medical Officer for Scotland, was found in April to have travelled to her second home, she resigned promptly (if not immediately). Mr Cummings, the Prime Minister’s chief adviser, was first defended by the Prime Minister over his drive from London to Durham on 27 March, and then given more than an hour in the Downing Street garden to explain his reasons to the press. For all the plausibility of the reasons that he gave for the trip, the police have said that, had they intercepted Mr Cummings on the drive, they would have ordered him to turn around and return to London.

Any judgment pronounced on Mr Cummings’s actions must first acknowledge the impure motivations that are swirling about: political score-settling against one of the Brexit architects; journalistic self-righteousness; even materialistic envy. Care should be taken, too, about the circularity of an argument based on the mood of “the British public”, when that has been informed solely by press reports and is, in any case, hard to calculate.

For a clearer perspective, it is perhaps helpful to take a historical view. The Marconi scandal of 1912 is mentioned in this week’s Diary (page 15). The Attorney General at the time was persuaded to acquire shares in the wireless telegraph company by its managing director, who happened to be his brother. Marconi was on the brink of being awarded a lucrative government contract. All that was needed was parliamentary approval. The Attorney General sold some of his shares to the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Government Chief Whip. When the contract, over-generous to Marconi, came up for debate, none of the men mentioned their shareholding. Later, they were able to deny wrong-doing, since their shares were in the American Marconi Company, organically separate but closely linked. Like Mr Cummings, none of the men did anything that was technically illegal. None the less, The Times’s leader of 9 June 1913 declared: “A man is not blamed for being splashed with mud. He is commiserated. But, if he has stepped into a puddle which he might easily have avoided, we say it is his own fault. If he protests that he did not know it was a puddle, we say that he ought to know better, but if he says that it was after all quite a clean puddle, then we judge him deficient in the sense of cleanliness. And the British public like their public men to have a very nice sense of cleanliness.”

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